Posts Tagged ‘Charles Darwin’

© Bahá’í World Centre

© Bahá’í World Centre

As the twentieth century draws to a close, it is no longer possible to maintain the belief that the approach to social and economic development to which the materialistic conception of life has given rise is capable of meeting humanity’s needs. Optimistic forecasts about the changes it would generate have vanished into the ever-widening abyss that separates the living standards of a small and relatively diminishing minority of the world’s inhabitants from the poverty experienced by the vast majority of the globe’s population.

(From The Prosperity of Humankind, a statement issued by the Bahá’í International Community March 1995)

Emp Civil

I realise that my current sequences of posts are very much focused on the individual life and its traumas, only incidentally bringing in the context of our lives as a consideration. To redress that imbalance I am republishing a sequence on ‘The Empathic Civilisation.’

In the last post I shared a somewhat simplified summary of the moral and practical challenges that confront us at this point in humanity’s material ascent from isolated cave to interconnected commerce.

I am now seeking to convey more fully Rifkin’s position in his book The Empathic Civilization on the long-standing interaction he perceives between empathy and entropy in this scenario.

Right at the start he raises the question about whether we have, as the Bahá’í Faith would argue as well, a dual potential (page 18):

Is it possible that human beings are not inherently evil or intrinsically self-interested and materialistic, but are of a very different nature – an empathic one – and that all the other drives that we have considered to be primary – aggression, violence, selfish behaviour, inquisitiveness – are in fact secondary drives that flow from repression or denial of our most basic instinct?

If the answer is ‘Yes,’ as he believes then other things follow (page 24):

A heightened empathic sentiment… allows an increasingly individualised population to affiliate with one another in more interdependent, extended, and integrated social organisms. This is the process that characterises what we call civilisation. . . . . When we say to civilise, we mean to empathise.

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

He argues (page 91) that Darwin himself came to recognise the inherent importance of ‘cooperation, symbiosis, and reciprocity’ in the survival of the fittest which, in terms of groups and societies, depends upon our forming ‘cooperative bonds’ with others. He adduces experimental evidence (pages 131-134) to support the idea that empathy is not self-serving in terms of looking good in the eyes of others, gaining brownie points to elicit future favours or even reducing discomfort at the sight of another’s suffering: ‘the primary motivation is pure altruism – that is, caring for the other rather than alleviating their own empathic distress.’

He extrapolates further to discern a possible connection between empathy and democracy (page 161). He acknowledges that effective empathy (page 173) needs to be balanced with a degree of detachment so that we do not end up in the quicksand unable to help either others or ourselves. Interestingly from a Bahá’í point of view, he places great emphasis (page 184) on dialogue, a process which may look essentially the same as consultation within the Bahá’í community, though lacking a spiritual foundation.

At the same time as he is developing this theme he begins to introduce evidence to illustrate the role of entropy. We hit this forcefully almost from the start (page 25):

If there were any lingering doubt as to how close our species is coming to the very limits of its sustainability on earth, a single statistic is revealing of our current state of affairs: our scientists tell us that the nearly seven billion human beings now inhabiting the Earth make up less than 1% of the total biomass of all the Earth’s consumers. Yet with our complex global economic and social infrastructure, we are currently consuming nearly 24% of the net primary production on Earth . . .

He then spells out what that means (page 26):

Our journey begins at the crossroads where the laws of energy that govern the universe come up against the human inclination to continually transcend our sense of isolation by seeking the companionship of others in evermore complex energy-consuming social arrangements. The underlying dialectic of human history is the continuous feedback loop between expanding empathy and increasing entropy.

Much later he introduces a concrete example from ancient history of this problematic interaction (page 222-23):

The same hydraulic technology that unleashed a vast increase in water energy flow, allowing the Sumerian people to build the world’s first great urban civilisation, extend the empathic bond, and advance human consciousness, led to an equally significant entropic impact on the surrounding environment that, in the end, cancelled out much of the gains, leaving both the civilisation and the environment impoverished.

He brings the Roman Empire into the frame later in support of his theory (pages 249-50) though as a psychologist I have always quite liked the lead-piping explanation for their eventually demise: I’m sure you know the gist – lead poisoning, cognitive deficits, military defeats – it’s quite neat really. He is unequivocal though about the way what actually happened confirms his view:

The popular conception is that Rome collapsed because of the decadence of its ruling class, the corruption of its leaders, exploitation of its servants and slaves, and the superior military tactics of invading barbarian hordes. While there is merit in this argument, the deeper cause of Rome’s collapse lies in the declining fertility of its soil and the decrease in agricultural yields. Its agricultural production could not provide sufficient energy to maintain Rome’s infrastructure and the welfare of its citizens. The exhaustion of Rome’s only available energy regime is a cautionary tale for our own civilisation as we begin to exhaust the cheap available fossil fuels that have kept our industrial society afloat.

Shame about the lead hypothesis, but I have to agree that his version makes a lot more sense.

JK 1819

John Keats in July 1819 (image from Walter Jackson Bate’s biography – Hogarth Press 1992)

He continues to explore the nature of empathy, seeing it as rooted in ‘embodied experience’ (page 273) and fostered by the increasingly empathy inducing artistic creations of myth, epic and, more recently, the novel, which have become accessible to greater and greater numbers of people as time’s gone on (pages 310-12). He brings into the mix the idea, popular with the Romantics and which I have already explored in terms of the work of John Keats, of ‘imaginative identification’ (page 341). He quotes John Ruskin who observed that ‘people would instantly care for others as well for themselves if only they could imagine others as well as themselves.’

He links the development of this capacity to the existence of ‘complex urban environments’ (page 343). He describes the Romantics as extending this fellow feeling beyond human beings alone to include the world of nature and all living beings (page 344).

It is to the mid-nineteenth century that Rifkin dates the use of electricity as a metaphor for describing ‘nature, human nature and the workings of civilisation’ (page 368), something which develops the idea of empathy even further. Electricity was perceived as ‘neither material nor immaterial’ (page 369) and therefore, he extrapolates (page 370):

A new sense of a porous nature helped create a new sense of social fluidity. Bodies were no longer constrained by their corporeality. If the world is both material and immaterial at same time, then the idea of clear-cut boundaries between people is more a social contrivance than a scientific reality.

The developments of first the telegraph, and then the telephone enabled ‘direct, instantaneous communication between millions of people’ (page 375). Interestingly, he adds (page 376): ‘The word “phony” emerged at the time to describe the experience of not believing the voice at the other end of the phone.’

It is in the 1890s that Rifkin perceives another pitfall than entropy emerging that could derail the empathic train (page 390):

In the 1890s, at the dawn of psychological consciousness, the long-standing notion of becoming a person of ‘good character’ began to give way to the revolutionary new idea of developing one’s ‘personality.’

He unpacks what that might mean (page 391):

Individuals became less concerned about their moral stature and more interested in whether they were liked by others. A premium was placed on influencing peers. To be personable was to exude charisma, to stand out in a crowd and be the centre of attention.

The detailed idea of levels of consciousness that underpin these points is something I shall be returning to in more detail in the later posts on that subject. On Friday I will be digging a bit deeper into the entropy issue and its links with commerce.

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Uncertain Death v3

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It is more than two years since I posted this short sequence. Given my recent sharing of Sharon Rawlette’s review, it seemed a good time to republish it.

The last post looked at some of the additional insights Penny Sartori’s book contributes to the field of NDE studies. Particularly intriguing for me were the insights relating to the field of Chaplaincy, some of the threads of which also appear in what follows.

Given that NDEs happen and they are not hallucinations what are the implications that she suggests flow from that realisation? It’s easiest to divide these into several categories:

  1. How do we improve the care we provide for those who have had a close brush with death or are actually dying, so as to take account of the reality of the NDE? These are the most relevant to Chaplaincy obviously.
  2. What are the after effects? I will deal with those she refers to which took my understanding further than previous accounts.
  3. How can they change our culture’s destructive attitude towards death?
  4. And lastly, how might they change the way we live now?

Improving Care for the dying:

People who have experienced an NDE have a clear idea of how we can improve the way that such people can be responded to in the aftermath (3053-58):

Following a retreat to help further understand their experience, a group of NDErs suggested ways of improving support for future experiencers:

• Understanding, well-informed healthcare workers
• Information on research, comparison with mystical traditions, historical perspectives, personal experiences and after effects
• Time to meditate, process the experience, pray or be in nature
• Spiritual counsellors, trained clergy, informed marriage and family counsellors, guides and mentors
• Workshops, retreats, conferences, support groups, classes, on-line support • Self-help material
• Heightened public awareness of all that the NDE entails
• Venues to learn, speak, network and integrate the NDE into careers
• Retreat for childhood NDErs

Certain simple practical steps became clearer. Routine medication may not always be the best thing, for example (3235):

When analysing the results of my research, one thing that I discovered was that the painkilling and sedative drugs we give patients appear to have an inhibitory effect on NDEs.

Her own painful personal experience during the death of her grandfather fuels the intensity of her concern with this issue (3258):

We nursed him in his own home and in my discussion with the palliative-care team I requested that midazolam be omitted from the infusion (I had found this to contribute greatly to confusional experiences in my research), which was agreed unless he became unmanageable and it would then be reviewed.

When the nurses visited that evening and moving him caused significant pain as the painkiller prescribed earlier had not fully kicked in, unknown to Satori they administered midazolam. Her grandfather (3064)  ‘never regained consciousness and died the next day, not having had the opportunity to say things he may have wanted to say to his daughter’ who had just arrived there from France.

She argues (3266) for ‘greater awareness of the dying process’ so that ‘many individuals faced with terminal illness [can] decide to complete a death plan or complete an advanced decision to refuse treatment (ADRT) form with regards to their wishes as their condition deteriorates.

The impact of an NDE


For source of image see link

Given my earlier comments on the possible relationship between NDEs and suicide, it was interesting to read her rather different take on the issue. She first of all quotes Greyson (3276):

Professor Bruce Greyson found that patients who had had multiple suicide attempts but then experienced an NDE during the attempt were far less likely to attempt suicide again.

The evidence points strongly even further in that direction (3279):

In fact, those who had an NDE during a suicide attempt felt that suicide was not an option. The NDE empowered them with a sense of purpose in life and prompted an overwhelming realization that they took their problems with them even when out of their body – there was simply no way to escape their problems, so to attempt suicide was futile.

There are other aspects of the aftermath. The most important for me is the emphasis she places on our interconnectedness. This comes out more strongly here than in most accounts of the evidence (3309).

The overall message of the NDE is that we are all interconnected and we should treat others as we wish to be treated ourselves.

She also places it interestingly in the unlikely context of evolutionary theory (3346):

. . . Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at Berkeley, highlights how in Darwin’s Descent of Man the word ‘love’ is mentioned 95 times and the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ is mentioned only twice. Despite not having great strength and agility, or large fangs, etc., the human race has survived and greatly evolved and Darwin believed this to be due to our ability to co-operate and to have sympathy for others. Darwin considered sympathy to be the strongest instinct in nature – there are deep reasons why we have evolved to be good to others: it’s wired into our DNA.

This also has ecological implications (3358-89):

. . . when we see ourselves as interconnected this is conducive not only to our survival as a species but also to our survival as a planet. . . . . . Another important way in which NDErs are affected is that they become more ecologically aware. With the rise of industrialization, humans are currently destroying nature for short-term gain. NDErs report an increased love for nature and the understanding that all people and things on the planet are interconnected.

Changing our attitude to Death

The book contains a powerful analysis of the problems with our culture’s attitude to death. (3427):

The avoidance of the subject of death was recognized over 32 years ago by Hampe, and it now persists to an even greater extent: ‘Anyone who has ever been in hospital, or still more in an intensive-care unit, has found that there above all the subject of dying and death is avoided, benevolently and persistently, though this is the last place where one might expect this avoidance.’

Our mechanistic and materialistic default position have contaminated our ways of dealing with death (3442):

Many people of all ages spend the last few weeks or months of their lives hooked up to machines. During the last few days or hours before the life of the patient is extinguished, relatives are distanced, as the visiting of loved ones remains controlled by the routines of the nurses and doctors.

hospice care

For source of image see link

There is though here a wonderful opportunity to respond to the spiritual aspects of experience (3448):

Healthcare workers are in a unique position of being able to provide both physical and spiritual care; as death approaches, addressing the patient’s spiritual needs is crucial. I regard nursing as one of the highest jobs, on a spiritual level, that can be done and I believe that being at the bedside of a dying patient is an absolute privilege.

Give that we are what Sartori describes (3452) as a ‘death-denying, materialistic society’ it may not be easy for us collectively to support those who are at the front line so that they can be of the greatest help and make the best use of this priceless opportunity.

More and more people, it is true, are coming to believe (3477) that ‘[t]here truly is no such thing as death. What many see as the end is really just a change, like a change of clothes, or a change of vehicle, or a change of residence.’  We are coming to recognize in increasing numbers that (3502) ‘. . .  materialist theories [are] not supported by . . . research and, if anything, drugs appear to inhibit the NDE as opposed to create it.’

We are still a very long way indeed from agreeing, as Bahá’u’lláh writes, that death is ‘a messenger of joy.’ This is because the downside militating against this way of seeing things is still remarkably formidable (3518):

Unfortunately, the belief that consciousness is created by the brain is so thoroughly ingrained within our current belief system that anything that suggests otherwise is immediately discounted or dismissed because it poses such a threat.

NDEs do offer some hope that the balance is beginning to shift (3658):

NDEs have previously been considered unworthy of science but, now that these experiences are being seriously acknowledged and are a valid area for scientific study, it seems that we are on the threshold of expanding our current knowledge about the meaning of life and death. There is no denying that they occur, we simply can’t explain them yet.


For source of image see link

This changes our attitude towards living

More than 200 years ago Wordsworth wrote:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers . . .

In the 21st century Sartori quotes Jules Lyons as saying (3577):

When I look at the world, it seems that more and more, humans are living out their lives as if their sole purpose is to ‘get’, rather than concentrating on living their soul purpose . . . which is to give.

Sartori then goes on to argue that NDEs are of evolutionary benefit in the way they encourage those who experience them, and many of those who hear about them, to balance their lives better in terms of the material and spiritual aspects. NDEs are a wake up call (3605):

An NDE is an accelerated spiritual transformation – these people have literally encountered death in a totally unexpected and sudden way. It has taken something to shake the foundations of their being and to experience life in ways other than what they have been conditioned to believe.

The resulting realisations and the changes they bring in terms of the way people live are helpful to both humanity and the planet (3607):

The spiritual transformation resulting from the NDE instils qualities that are highly conducive to the evolution of our species and the planet as a whole. We are continuously evolving. When things are considered from a global perspective, spiritual development will lead to a reconsideration of how we live alongside our fellow humans, animals and plants in the world and result in a balance which is necessary for our survival as a planet.

A key piece of learning from the NDE frequently concerns our connectedness with everything and everyone else (3632 -41):

Imagine if everyone changed their perspective on life and saw each other as interconnected and valuable people, all part of the same underlying consciousness. What if everyone put the needs of others before their own needs? How radically transformed the whole world would be. . . . . During the NDE there is an overwhelming understanding that everything is interconnected. Coupled with the message from the life review, this points to the notion that what we do to others we ultimately do to ourselves.

Sartori recognizes that for this insight to be truly effective there has to be a change in (3681) ‘mass consciousness.’ Where can this change begin, though, except with individuals. As Bahá’ís we have a model for how that individual change, once begun, can be expressed in communities so that our civilisation can be ultimately transformed.

In any case, reading her book is one good place to start. Soon I will be looking at how even so-called ‘negative NDEs,’ looked at in the right way, can also be a force for good.

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Alvin Plantinga

Alvin Plantinga

At the end of the last post I stated it may not be enough to adduce evidence, which satisfies me, to support the idea of a non-material reality ignored by the mainstream because of a bias in science that discounts it. I need also to have some sound reasons for my claim that there is a valid distinction to be made between a good science, prepared to accept the possibility of transpersonal explanations, and a bad science, dogmatically committed to ruling any such explanation of experience out of count on the a priori grounds that it couldn’t possible exist no matter what evidence was brought forward in support of it.

Here I turn to Alvin Plantinga as the most coherent proponent of the case that has convinced me. His book, Where the Conflict Really Lies, deserves the attention of every sceptic. His introduction marks out his core contention:

If my thesis is right, therefore—if there is deep concord between science and Christian or theistic belief, but deep conflict between science and naturalism—then there is a science/religion (or science/ quasi-religion) conflict, all right, but it isn’t between science and theistic religion: it’s between science and naturalism 

He defines ‘naturalism’ as ‘the thought that there is no such person as God, or anything like God.’ He sees it as a kind of religion and definitely not a science. Atheists need to bear with this a little longer to give his argument a fair chance.

Plantinga clarifies where the conflict seems to lie for him:

There is no real conflict between theistic religion and the scientific theory of evolution. What there is, instead, is conflict between theistic religion and a philosophical gloss or add-on to the scientific doctrine of evolution: the claim that evolution is undirected, unguided, unorchestrated by God (or anyone else).

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

Must Evolution be Unguided?

If there is no deep-seated conflict for Plantinga between the theory of evolution and theism, the same is surprisingly not true in the case of naturalism and science:

I argue that the same most emphatically does not go for science and naturalism. . . . . there is deep and serious conflict between naturalism and science. . . . it is improbable, given naturalism and evolution, that our cognitive faculties are reliable. . . . . a naturalist who accepts current evolutionary theory has a defeater for the proposition that our faculties are reliable. . . . naturalism and evolution are in serious conflict: one can’t rationally accept them both.

He starts with a simple statement of naturalism’s position before exploring some of his doubts about it (page 34):

Life itself originated just by way of the regularities of physics and chemistry (through a sort of extension of natural selection); and undirected natural selection has produced language and mind, including our artistic, moral, religious, and intellectual proclivities. Now many—theists and others—have found these claims at least extremely doubtful; some have found them preposterous. Is it really so much as possible that language, say, or consciousness, or the ability to compose great music, or prove Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, or think up the idea of natural selection should have been produced by mindless processes of this sort? That is an ambitious claim.

One of the main purposes of Plantinga’s book is to scotch the misconception that a theory of evolution inevitably entails the assumption that it must have been unguided for good and all (page 55):

Well, if we think of the Darwinian picture as including the idea that the process of evolution is unguided, then of course that picture is completely at odds with providentialist religion. As we have seen, however, current evolutionary science doesn’t include the thought that evolution is unguided; it quite properly refrains from commenting on that metaphysical or theological issue.

He concludes that evolution has incorrectly been seen as hostile to religious belief (pages 63-64):

The scientific theory of evolution as such is not incompatible with Christian belief; what is incompatible with it is the idea that evolution, natural selection, is unguided. But that idea isn’t part of evolutionary theory as such; it’s instead a metaphysical or theological addition.

Caveman and Dinosaur

For source of image see link

Can Naturalism be trusted?

His perspective has other solid ground to stand on. One point he sees as crucial (page 275):

It is important to see that our notion of the laws of nature, crucial for contemporary science, has [its] origin in Christian theism.

An additional critical factor is that the laws of nature lie within the grasp of our understanding (page 276):

On this conception, part of the job of science is to discover the laws of nature; but then of course science will be successful only if it is possible for us human beings to do that. Science will be successful only if these laws are not too complex, or deep, or otherwise beyond us. Again, this thought fits well with theistic religion and its doctrine of the image of God; God not only sets laws for the universe, but sets laws we can (at least approximately) grasp.

From this he concludes (page 282):

With respect to the laws of nature, therefore, there are at least three ways in which theism is hospitable to science and its success . . . First, science requires regularity, predictability, and constancy; . . . From the point of view of naturalism, the fact that our world displays the sort of regularity and lawlike behavior necessary for science is a piece of enormous cosmic luck, a not-to-be-expected bit of serendipity. But regularity and lawlikeness obviously fit well with the thought that God is a rational person who has created our world, and instituted the laws of nature.

Second, not only must our world in fact manifest regularity and law-like behavior: for science to flourish, scientists and others must believe that it does. . . . such a conviction fits well with the theistic doctrine of the image of God.

For me though the killer blow that he delivers is even more fundamental. There is an undermining aspect of naturalism for anyone who chooses to espouse it (page 313):

. . . . .  suppose you are a naturalist: you think that there is no such person as God, and that we and our cognitive faculties have been cobbled together by natural selection. Can you then sensibly think that our cognitive faculties are for the most part reliable? . . . . . . the probability of our cognitive faculties being reliable, given naturalism and evolution, is low. But then . . . . . if I believe both naturalism and evolution, I have a defeater for my intuitive assumption that my cognitive faculties are reliable. If I have a defeater for that belief, however, then I have a defeater for any belief I take to be produced by my cognitive faculties.

We need to unpack a little more the logic that underlies this conclusion (page 315):

The principal function or purpose, then, . . . . . of our cognitive faculties is not that of producing true or verisimilitudinous (nearly true) beliefs, but instead that of contributing to survival by getting the body parts in the right place.  . . . hence it does not guarantee mostly true or verisimilitudinous beliefs. . . . . What Churchland therefore suggests is that naturalistic evolution—that theory—gives us reason to doubt two things: (a) that a purpose of our cognitive systems is that of serving us with true beliefs, and (b) that they do, in fact, furnish us with mostly true beliefs.

For example, awareness that a predator is present is not a belief. It is a trigger to action based on lower level brain processes.  Any beliefs that ride on the back of those processes at a higher level of brain function are irrelevant to the production of life-saving behaviour and may or may not be true.

In short, and to me very sweet, if you believe naturalistic evolution is true you cannot be sure any of your beliefs, including naturalism, are true. Unpacked a bit more it says, if we believe that how we think has been exclusively determined by natural selection, which is only concerned with our capacity to survive long enough to reproduce, then we cannot absolutely trust our beliefs about anything beyond that level, including both our belief that our thinking ability is fixed by evolution and our conviction that there is no God and no spiritual dimension.

Accepting this entails accepting that naturalism cannot be a science. If you add into the mix that excluding any potentially valid data a priori is unscientific then naturalism, which enshrines the ideas that all we are is the fruit of evolution and that anything suggesting there is a spiritual dimension must be false, definitely cannot be a science.

QED, in my book. Gone in a puff of compelling logic is any valid reason in true science to exclude a priori from consideration evidence that supports a spiritual explanation.

Perhaps with his tongue slightly in his cheek, Plantinga closes his book by saying (page 349):

My conclusion, therefore, is that there is superficial conflict but deep concord between science and theistic belief, but superficial concord and deep conflict between science and naturalism. Given that naturalism is at least a quasi-religion, there is indeed a science/religion conflict, all right, but it is not between science and theistic religion: it is between science and naturalism. That’s where the conflict really lies.

The Conscious Universe IRMIn Summary

For me then the case is strong.

There is enough evidence, much of it referred to elsewhere on this blog, to support the notion that the mind is not reducible to the brain, and beyond that the mind seems to have the capacity, under certain conditions, to respond to wavelengths of reality that contradict our materialistic consensus.

There are compelling reasons for mainstream science to take this evidence seriously if it is to be true to its own most fundamental principles. And there is no good reason for pretending that the idea of a spiritual reality is so preposterous we’ve no need to look at the evidence in its favour. In fact, a central tenet of modern science, the theory of evolution, suggests the exact opposite: any claim to reduce our reasoning entirely to material origins in evolution and to protect that claim by ruling out in advance as false any evidence to the contrary, would, if it were true, undermine its own validity.

All of this can be explored in more depth at the links below. Any atheist who refuses to explore not only my version of the books referred to but the books themselves, should at least consider that they might be protecting their prejudices rather than behaving rationally. If, after careful consideration, neither the argument nor the evidence contained in those links shifts them from conviction to at least agnosticism, then they should acknowledge that what they believe is at least as much an act of faith as my position on the matter.

Related Articles

Hard Evidence


Consciousness beyond Life (1/3): problems of scepticism
Consciousness beyond Life (2/3): ‘consciousness does not happen in the brain
Consciousness beyond Life (3/3): nonlocality

Book Review (1/3): ‘The Spiritual Brain’ and its critique of materialism
Book Review (2/3): ‘The Spiritual Brain’ on consciousness
Book Review (3/3): ‘The Spiritual Brain’ on the costs of the materialistic approach

Irreducible Mind – a review (1/3): how psychology lost the plot
Irreducible Mind – a review (2/3): Myers & the mind-body problem
Irreducible Mind – a review (3/3): the self & the Self


Book Review (1/2): Radin, Psi and Scepticism
Book Review (2/2): Radin on Processes of Distortion


Where the Conflict Really Lies (1/4): preparing the ground
Where the Conflict Really Lies (2/4): a superficial conflict
Where the Conflict Really Lies (3/4): a deep compatibility
Where the Conflict Really Lies (4/4): the deep conflict

Possible Implications: Heart & Head

An Understanding Heart (1/4): divided we fail
An Understanding Heart (2/4): a consensus trance
An Understanding Heart (3/4): separating gut from heart
An Understanding Heart (4a/4): redressing the balance
An Understanding Heart (4b/4): of lamps and gardens
An Understanding Heart (4c/4): of mirrors and reflection

The Third ‘I’ (2/5): Kahneman Revisited – the three ‘I’s
The Third ‘I’ (3a/5): the wisdom of dreams
The Third ‘I’ (3b/5): the wisdom of dreams
The Third ‘I’ (4/5): whispers from the heart
The Third ‘I’ (5a/5): the power of silence
The Third ‘I’ (5b/5): interthinking

Three Brains Revisited (1/3): A Stranded Mariner?
Three Brains Revisited (2/3): Are We Too Trigger-Happy?
Three Brains Revisited (3/3): Is Mammering the Best Policy?

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‘Saturn Devouring His Son’ by Goya

Arise, O people, and, by the power of God’s might, resolve to gain the victory over your own selves, that haply the whole earth may be freed and sanctified from its servitude to the gods of its idle fancies – gods that have inflicted such loss upon, and are responsible for the misery of their wretched worshippers. These idols form the obstacle that impedeth man in his efforts to advance in the path of perfection.

(Bahá’u’lláh: Tablets page 86)

This sequence of posts appeared in September 2012. It seemed a good idea to republish them now. They contain a number of references to Century of Light, the focus of the workshop materials I am currently posting, and placing them between two workshops dealing with the dark side of our materialistic culture seems especially appropriate. I am posting all three in the sequence on consecutive days. It’s perhaps also necessary to share the nub of a comment left on part one of the original  by a good friend. He felt that “the relationship of secularisation and the ‘secularisation thesis’ (so beloved of 1960s sociology) to the present state of religion and religiosity is much more complex and multi-dimensional than this post seems to suggest.” This is a valid point and is not explored in this sequence, though it triggered some changes in Parts 2 & 3 as I explain. 

Why is secularisation happening?

In quoting Matthew Arnold in the last post, we mentioned that Tennyson also was affected by the decline in religion which was so dramatically felt at that time. Behind Tennyson’s anguish of doubt you sense throughout whole sections of the poem In Memoriam the presence of Darwinian ideas of evolution:


Be near me, when the sensuous frame
Is rack’d with pangs that conquer trust;
And Time, a maniac scattering dust,
And life a fury slinging flame.

Be near me when my faith is dry,
And men the flies of latter spring,
That lay their eggs, and sting and sing
And weave their petty cells and die.

Be near me when I fade away,
To point the term of human strife,
And on the low dark verge of life
The twilight of eternal day.

(Tennyson: In Memoriam: No. 50)

Hamilton, in The Sociology of Religion, feels that the decline is linked to industrialisation (and urbanisation), but not in a straightforward way. For instance, the United States is highly industrialised but is not comparably secularised.

The Role of Reason

The growth of a culture’s emphasis on reason, Weber’s rationalisation, is also an important, maybe central factor. Also factors internal to Protestantism may have contributed. One view holds that the Reformation instigated these. Berger (quoted on page 171 of Hamilton) states:

Protestantism may be described in terms of an immense shrinkage in the scope of the sacred in reality, as compared with its Catholic adversary.

He feels it divested itself of mystery, miracle and magic. Christianity’s increasing pluralism also aided the spread of the rationalising tendency: the pluralistic situation (page 172) “where one can choose one’s religion is also a situation where one can choose no religion at all.” This is perhaps the process that produces one of the modern religious styles described in Century of Light (page 46):

Religion, where not simply driven back into fanaticism and unthinking rejection of progress, became progressively reduced to a kind of personal preference, a predilection, a pursuit designed to satisfy spiritual and emotional needs of the individual.

Charles Darwin

Hamilton then looks at the factors external to Christianity. The growth of rationality is taken to be central. He quotes Wilson (page 173) as arguing that:

It is not inherent tendencies in Christianity that are central but the autonomous growth of scientific knowledge and method. The argument is that this has undermined the credibility of religious interpretations of the world.

Century of Light describes this in forceful terms (page 69), not as the voice of true science but something masquerading as that:

What they find themselves struggling against daily is the pressure of a dogmatic materialism, claiming to be the voice of “science”, that seeks systematically to exclude from intellectual life all impulses arising from the spiritual level of human consciousness.

Also people came to look to political institutions and processes for justice and for better conditions, not to the Church. The decline of community has played its part.


It is however possible to argue, as Hamilton goes on to do, that both the decline of religion and the rise of materialistic science have common underlying causes. Religion and science, he feels, are not necessarily at odds. Religion has not helped itself in the West by pronouncing on empirical matters using scriptural evidence. Beneath that the decline of Feudalism may have contributed to the decline of Christianity, the rise of science as well as ultimately and very indirectly the temporary credibility of Marxism.

Shoghi Effendi quotes reports of Christian missionaries (World Order of Bahá’u’lláh, page 181) describing communism as the “religious irreligion” and expands on its role in the next page:

The excessive growth of industrialism and its attendant evils . . . . the aggressive policies initiated and the persistent efforts exerted by the inspirers and organizers of the Communist movement . . . have no doubt contributed to the de-Christianization of the masses, and been responsible for a notable decline in the authority, the prestige and power of the Church.

Similarly, on the subject of materialism and looking most particularly at the Twentieth Century, Century of Light (page 46) asserts:

Karl Marx

Fathered by nineteenth century European thought, acquiring enormous influence through the achievements of American capitalist culture, and endowed by Marxism with the counterfeit credibility peculiar to that system, materialism emerged full-blown in the second half of the twentieth century as a kind of universal religion claiming absolute authority in both the personal and social life of humankind. Its creed was simplicity itself. Reality – including human reality and the process by which it evolves – is essentially material in nature. The goal of human life is, or ought to be, the satisfaction of material needs and wants. Society exists to facilitate this quest, and the collective concern of humankind should be an ongoing refinement of the system, aimed at rendering it ever more efficient in carrying out its assigned task.

The Inevitable Part of a Cycle?

Interestingly, Stark and Bainbridge (Hamilton: pages 176-178) regard secularisation as nothing new but rather a part of the normal cycle of religious development, and, in describing their model, create fascinating resonances with the Bahá’í perspective.

Ultimately, Churches decline as a result of their tendency to develop ever more extreme worldliness, engendering the emergence of revived religious groups . . . or new innovative developments. . . . While acknowledging that the rise of science stimulated an unprecedented, rapid and extreme degree of secularisation in contemporary society Stark and Bainbridge argue that science cannot fulfil many central needs and human desires. It cannot remove all suffering and injustice in this life, it cannot offer an escape from individual extinction, it cannot make human existence meaningful. Only God can do these things in people’s eyes. Religion, then, will not only survive and rise to prominence again, it will be transcendental or supernaturalist in form. It is more likely to be, further, the innovative . . . .  movements rather than the sectarian revivals of established traditions that will flourish since the latter can only come up against, in their turn, the same forces which have brought about a degree of secularisation in the first place.

Towards the end of his chapter on this subject Hamilton quotes Fenn (page 180) as wondering whether secularisation “does not so much drive religion from modern society [as foster] a type of religion which has no major functions for the entire society.” Spirituality becomes purely magical, even occult. The conclusion voiced in Century of Light (page 6) captures this:

inherited orthodoxies [are] all too often replaced by the blight of an aggressive secularism that [calls] into doubt both the spiritual nature of humankind and the authority of moral values themselves. Everywhere, the secularization of society’s upper levels [seems] to go hand in hand with a pervasive religious obscurantism among the general population.

Exclusive Humanism

Prompted by Barney’s comment on the earlier post in this sequence, I revisited a book that I failed to finish in 2008. Charles Taylor, in that book – A Secular Age – dismissed what he refers to (page 22) as ‘subtraction stories’ and argued that ‘new inventions, newly constructed self-understandings and related practices’ were the truly effective factors. He argues (page 20) for what he labels ‘secularity 3’ stating that this:

. . . . is my interest here, as against 1 (secularised public spaces), and 2 (the decline of belief and practice) . . . [It] consists of new conditions of belief; it consists in a new shape to the experience which prompts to and is defined by belief; in a new context in which all search and questioning about the moral and spiritual must proceed.

He feels that (page 21):

The main feature of this new context is that it puts an end to the naive acknowledgement of the transcendent, or of goals or claims which go beyond human flourishing. But this is quite unlike religious turnovers in the past, . . . The crucial change which brought us into this new condition was the coming of exclusive humanism as a widely available option.

He defines ‘exclusive humanism’ as (page 18):

. . . the coming of modern secularity in my sense has been co-terminous with the rise of a society in which the first time in history a purely self-sufficient humanism came to be a widely available option. I mean by this a humanism accepting no final goals beyond human flourishing, or any allegiance to anything else beyond this flourishing. Of no previous society was this true.

The next post will consider where things might be moving from here. I feel there is more to say about this than I will be able to articulate at this point.

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WJ pencil

William James – self-portrait in pencil

Because in the background of my last sequence of posts lurked the thinking of William James, it seemed a good idea to republish this sequence on The Eclipse of Certainty from last Autumn. The three posts are appearing on consecutive days: this is the second.

Yesterday I attempted to explain my default position of uncertainty and why it lent such a strong appeal to Paul Jerome Croce’s book on William James. Now comes the difficult task of cherry picking key quotes from the book to illustrate why the feeling of attraction did not wear off as I read my way through it.

Principled Uncertainty

What follows here, designed simply to illustrate this one point, is a sparse selection of quotes from this book’s richly detailed and rewarding survey of the thinking of the time. I’m going to pick up the story with the impact of Darwin.

It would be impossible to overstate the degree of shock his book created. This is both because its argument was profoundly unsettling, and its accessibility meant that it was very widely read. What I hadn’t realised till I read Croce’s book was that he shocked not only the religious but the scientific community as well (page 88):

Science practised under the star of Darwinism represented the displacement of the cultured amateur by professional experts and a divorce of science from moral purpose and religious conviction. Most important, the new science, operating according to probabilities, removed its findings from expectations of certainty in either science or religion. This methodological challenge to scientific certainty is the true Darwinian revolution, far more than the supposed triumph of science over religion or even the dominance of Darwin’s particular insights about evolution.

The effect of this on William James is of particular interest to me (page 109-110):

The major shock of Darwin for James turned out to be the great biologist’s method and its implications for science and religion. Because the theory of natural selection was a plausible explanation rather than a proof of the origin of species, James began to doubt the need to expect certainty in either his science or his religion. . . . . . Darwin’s approaches provided a signpost, but William James in the 1860s still had much learning and struggling to do in his journey toward adopting beliefs without certainty.

In the 1850s and 1860s William James was a member of a loosely constituted group of young thinkers that called itself the Metaphysical Club (page 154):

The central issue of their enquiries was certainty. They saw that neither scientific theory nor religious faith could generate conventional forms of certainty, and they searchingly asked whether there could be any other basis for belief and action.

This has always been a key question for me. It’s not surprising, then, that I felt myself to be in like-minded company. At this point I found an interesting side issue mentioned, suggesting that Richard Dawkins might be blindly following a long line of misguided popularisers, dating back to Darwin’s own time, and suggests that he really should know better. Croce refers to (page 155) ‘the recent revolution in Darwin studies, which demonstrates the scientific unorthodoxy of Darwin’s probabilistic methods and attributes the materialistic claims of scientific certainty to Darwin’s popularisers rather than to Darwin’s science itself.’ Music to my ears again.


Chauncy Wright

A key influence on William James was a contemporary and fellow Metaphysical Club member, Chauncy Wright (page 174):

William James learned from his friend Wright to reject the certainties of traditional religion and to regard science in probabilistic terms, but James never accepted the claim that science offered alternative certainties. By considering the uncertainties of both fields, he extended Wright’s ideas further than Wright himself could imagine.

James then moved further on the shoulders of Charles Sanders Peirce (page 195):

Without intending it, this rigorous pacesetter for James’s understanding of science became a role model for the younger man’s more thorough embrace of uncertainty. Pierce’s ambiguities opened a wedge in the edifice of scientific authority which James expanded into wholesale questioning of the possibility of finding certainty in any beliefs.

A core aspect of Peirce’s thinking concerned the nature of what we can achieve by thinking (page 144):

[He maintained that] our minds can never reach the essences of things, but only come to know them in mediated ways. . . . . “Our idea of anything is an idea of its sensible effects. . . . . .[H]e claimed our minds can really know the world (at least in the long run), but that such knowledge will always be mediated; . . . . [T]he method of science is focused correctly on effects, not essences.

He felt that most knowledge was probabilistic (page 216):

Probabilities can provide certainties, but with important qualifications: as Peirce had already realised at least as early as 1867, they provide answers only about groups and in the long run. So he declared it “unsound” to claim “that knowing a thing to be probable is not knowledge.”

This approach requires as assumption of orderliness in nature (page 219):

Inductive inquiry, which gains knowledge through “a process of sampling,” relies on the assumed orderliness of its sample to do its business, since the inquirer presumes that the randomly selected portion “has nearly the same frequency of occurrence” as the whole class of things under evaluation. . . . He leaned his faith in induction on the orderliness of the human mind and the world it comes to investigate.

CS Peirce

Charles Sanders Peirce

(This sounds like an anticipation of Plantinga’s recent case that science and religion are inherently in harmony.) It’s clear therefore that Peirce did believe ‘in a divine creator and an orderly universe’ but his ‘prime goal [was] to lay the cosmological ground for his scientific project.’ Where did this leave James? Croce is preparing the ground for a second volume that does not seem yet to have appeared, so he does not go into great detail (page 223):

He was much more attuned than his more logical colleague to addressing the growing suspicion among scientists, religious believers, science watchers, and religion watchers that their propositions could not provide the certainty that previous generations had cherished.

He then qualifies this (page 224):

Recognition was only the first step, because he realised even more acutely than his peers the psychological appeal of certainty. To maintain the moral commitments that his whole circle cherished, to avoid a slide into nihilism, and to reconstruct belief for a scientific audience, James would need to find the moral equivalent of certainty.

Lamberth, whose work I looked at in a previous post, has much more light to shed on where James’s thinking ended up than I have time to repeat here. The final sense I have is that James did achieve a position where, even though uncertainty could not be completely dispelled, a workable sense of reality that would guide effective practical and consensus moral action is within our reach, even in the still pluralistic social world we inhabit. This is very much how I feel about the issue, hence my sense of being very much at home in this tome.

All that remains is to explain how I find it possible to feel at home with both this level of uncertainty and my commitment to the Bahá’í path. That will have to wait until tomorrow.

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